1960s and 1970s are remembered as the golden age of music, the
heyday of Radio Afghanistan and Kabul as a cultural centre. Farida
Mahwash, was the great woman singer of the time. She came from a
highly respectable Kabul family. Her mother was a teacher of the
Holy Quran, and she started work at the radio station as a typist.
But before long her wonderful voice and exceptional musical
abilities were discovered by Radio Afghanistan's director of music,
and her career as a radio singer was launched.
Radio music was a modernizing force in a country that was still
deeply conservative and slowly recovering from the brief civil war
of 1929, when the progressive King Amanullah was deposed by a
religious backlash that foreshadowed the extremes of the Taliban
nearly 50 years later. Radio made it possible for amateur musicians
to give voice in public. Some became
professional, such as Ahmad
Zahir, son of a former prime minister, and the nearest Kabul came to
a Presley or a Sinatra. Even more significant was the way that
broadcasting overturned popular prejudices that connected women
singers with prostitution.
Mahwash's rise to fame owed much to another famous Kabuli
musician, Ustad Mohammad Hashem, whose
ancestors came from India and were brought to Kabul in the 1860s as
court musicians by the then ruler,
Sher Ali Khan. Hashem
was recognized as an ustad , a "master musician", for his artistry
in playing the tabla drums. He was also a multi-instrumentalist,
singing and playing various stringed instruments. In 1976 he proudly
played me his latest recording, five minutes of virtuoso tapping on
a matchbox and scraping its corrugated sides, like a washboard.
"See," he said. "I can make music out of anything." He followed the
path of mystical Islam (Sufism) and believed in the spirituality of
music - ideas that were diametrically opposed to the Puritanism of
to afghanland.com sources, Hashem became Mahwash's
mentor, and composed many songs for her to sing over the radio. One
of the best known was O Bacheh (Oh Boy), which brings together half
a dozen regional songs in one extended modernized song cycle. Not
all musicians were impressed. One said to me: "What's this? 'Oh boy,
oh boy. Come so we can dance the cha cha cha. Let's dance to the
Logari tunes?' This poetry is trite, it has no meaning."
But Hashem also taught his protégée some Indian classical singing
- and, on the basis of this, Mahwash was awarded the title of ustad
in 1977 by the ministry for information and culture. This was a
controversial step, as the honorific is normally reserved for men.
Mahwash's regular accompanists were Hashem on harmonium,
and his two younger brothers, Asif and Arif, who both play tabla
drums. The three Mahmood brothers dominated the world of classical
tabla playing in Kabul. They numbered several Americans among their
many students, and in 1978 toured the US. That same year, Taraki
staged his coup and a communist government took over the country.
The golden age of music had come to an end.
Mahwash and the Mahmood brothers remained in Kabul. The
communists were great patrons of music, which they regarded as a
sign of social progress, but there was heavy censorship. Songs in
any way supportive of the rebels were banned, and artists were often
asked to perform songs on radio in praise of the regime. While Kabul
remained relatively secure and free from fighting, in the provinces
the war raged and many thousands of Afghans were killed by the
communist government and the Soviet troops who had been sent in to
It was a time of deep uncertainty, with younger men likely to be
called up to fight. Many lived in fear of a midnight visit from the
secret police. One by one, the three brothers escaped: Hashem to
Germany, Asif to London, Arif to Pakistan. Mahwash stayed in Kabul
until 1991, when she too managed to get to Pakistan. I met her that
year in Islamabad, living in fear of assassination from both sides
in the war. President Najib had reminded her that one in every 10
Afghan refugees in Pakistan was an agent of Khad, Afghanistan's
secret police, and that she would be assassinated for deserting her
homeland. And the mujahiddin threatened her life because she was a
singer - a woman singer - who had remained in Kabul.
Philippe Labreveux of the UNHCR in Islamabad heard of her plight,
and organized recording sessions for a cassette to celebrate UNHCR's
40th anniversary. Hashem's brother Arif accompanied her on tabla.
Through the contacts made with the UN, and in recognition of the
special threat to her life, she was granted political asylum in the
US. For the past 10 years she has lived in California.
Mahwash's teacher, Hashem, died in Germany, but, she reunited
with his two brothers, Asif and Arif, at the London Concert for
Afghanistan, on March 14 2002 a charity event in aid of Care,
Medicines sans Frontières, Ockenden International and Save the
Children. They were joined by Asif's son, Yusuf, another
exceptional tabla and harmonium player, who is music director for
the concert. With Yusuf dipping for his uncle Hashem, they recreated
Mahwash songs from the past, and offer the kind of
tabla trio performance that was once the talk of the cognoscenti of
Ustad Mahwash has performed in many European cities in 2001 and
toured the Americas. She has received many awards including the
award of "Golden Voice" in Europe and the first afghan singer to
receive the coveted "Janis Joplin Award"
her tour with the Kabul ensamble she has released this CD
entitled "Mahwash: Radio Kaboul"
to a clip
used to be a musicians' district in old Kabul. But it became the
frontline during the mujahiddin
fighting of 1992-96.
"There are no more masters to teach a new generation of
musicians," explained Ustad Mahwash,
best-known female singers, as she prepared for a concert in
As her title 'Ustad' indicates, Mahwash
is herself a "maestro". She is one of the few Afghan
women to have trained with the classical masters and continues,
36 years after she turned professional, to pass on that
But she does so from exile in
"When I heard there was relative peace in
I wanted to go back and do a big concert. But there are still
remnants of the Taliban there and I was worried they wouldn't
let me into the country, let alone sing before a huge crowd.
"My husband told me: 'Don't go. Maybe there'll be saboteurs
and they'll plant a bomb. Then lots of innocent people will be
hurt and you'll be blamed'."
So Mahwash sings abroad -- for
Afghans in exile, for Westerners who have only recently
discovered where her country is and for US Secretary of State
Colin Powell, who recently invited her to perform at a reception
he was hosting.
"It was an
for me that
the Americans chose Afghan music," she said, sidestepping
the politics. "It's an honor
to represent Afghan women, whose voices have been
Mahwash performed in Paris with the
Kabul Ensemble, a new generation of Afghan musicians, again
operating in exile.
Thus many of Mahwash's songs are
classical dari poems set to music whose structure is that of
classical ragas, with rhythms reminiscent of
drums and the North African derbuka.
The Kabul Ensemble has updated part of their traditional
repertoire, swapping the original love lyrics for the nostalgic
yearnings of the exile.
But neither they nor Mahwash have
been tempted to Westernize their
music along the lines of
most prominent singer, Nusrat Fateh
Ali Khan, who introduced electric bass and
synthesizer to the spiritual sufi music of his
"I don't see the need to change style. Our music is rich
enough," Mahwash explains.
That determination has paid off. Mahwash
received an award in
for services to music and last year she performed with South
African doyenne Myriam Makeba.
was also nominated along with Kaboul Ensemble and won the
coveted "World Music Award" presented by Jon Snow
sponsored by BBC.
"I got married at 18 and used to hum a lot around the
house. My husband was impressed and with his permission I
started taking classical lessons under the great masters and
singing for national radio," she explains.
Mahwash is resolutely diplomatic on
this point: "I'm a singer and I've been away. I don't know
what the policy is and I've never touched politics," she
Then she leans forward, suddenly serious: "Art," she
stresses, "is about affection and kindness."